Plus qu’un souvenir

“Is this your first trip in Ireland, Megan?”

The agent looked at me with a kind but blank expression as I stood in an immigration hall not much larger than a doctor’s waiting room.

In my mind I wanted to say, “You mean this month?”—but I knew it was neither the appropriate place nor person to explain my love affair with this country. To the man holding my blue passport, I was just another heartbeat requiring scrutiny before he’d decide whether to wave me through.

This trip to Cork was taken last weekend, and it offered little more than an audible inhale-exhale of fresh green air. This province of Munster, truth be told, is a bit more special than the rest of Ireland. It’s where I trace my ancestors; everything I know and still don’t know about it holds an invisible, almost sacred significance.

As I traveled to the Parnell Place bus station, my eyes fell on a dealership called Lehane Motors. This is the surname of my great-grandmother. While visiting last year, I went to buy a ticket at the Cork Opera House and reflexively started to spell her husband’s last name before the sales agent cut me off. “Sure I know how to spell your surname,” he said to me, in spite of my American accent. He was as polite as the man at Cork Airport, and in both instances I found myself oddly at ease with the glancing interactions. I didn’t grow up here, but I do feel as though I have a history.

*      *      *

It is now seven days since my last Cork trip, and I’m waking up in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. I have no ancestral connection to France, but in my own lifetime I’ve managed to discover a few favorite anchorages scattered across the country. And here on this particular morning, I can sense that I’m close to something fairly familiar. Something more tangible than what came before me in Cork. Something that is indeed directly personal.

On the Quai de Grenelle, there is a rather unsightly collection of buildings located across from L’île aux Cygnes—the skinny island in the Seine with the little Statue of Liberty standing watch on the end). Within this high-rise cluster there’s a distinctive red hotel that I stayed at twice as a teenager. In name the hotel has changed hands, but in my mind l’hôtel Nikko de Paris was where Northwest Airlines put my dad up for two days at time when he flew into Charles de Gaulle airport.

During those years when Dad slept along the Seine, he was only about 12 years older than I am now. This in itself feels almost unbelievable when used as a measuring stick of time’s passage. While I have returned many times since first visiting Paris and sleeping in the Nikko, on this September weekend in 2017 I decided to walk back down to the hotel. I am now 40 years old, and today it is a Novotel sitting on an ugly and rather unremarkable street. The finer details of what it must have been in the early 90s are for me all but wiped out. While I do remember this place, most parts have faded into a sort of unknown that shares commonality with my roots in Cork.

I guess that in the grand passage of time, this how things go. The names of places change, we come and go and remember and forget as we pass from one generation to the next. I believe it was Tom Waits who once told me that the world keeps turning.

*      *      *

And in the time that has strung together these weekend trips, back in New England my dad has been doing a bit of historical digging of his own. Now twenty years retired from the airline business, he has just paid a visit to his childhood town of Brockton. He went to retrieve some documents, but while there he made a brief detour past his old house located at 46 Calmar Street. “Looks the same!” he texted as he sent me a photo of the place I’ve heard so much about while I grew up on Cape Cod.

The image of the old Hallinan home is unremarkable—it could be anyplace, anywhere in mid-20th century New England. It’s a gray two-floor structure with a modest front porch on a street corner that is crisscrossed by a cat’s cradle of telephone and electricity lines. I’ve never set foot inside, but even from the screen of my smartphone I can spot something of intimate familiarity.

That little front porch in the picture—unlike what I can make of the rest of the house—has had some replacement work done in recent years. The rest of it, on the other hand, looks dilapidated to the point of downright sad. There’s rust running down the house’s siding, and it’s obvious that so much more would be needed before this place could be brought into 21st century acceptability. Sadly, given what I know about this Brockton neighborhood now, I doubt that much more will ever be done.

But still, there is something about the porch Dad’s photo that points to my family’s individual history. It’s the sun catching the persistently gleaming railway that connect the top of the porch to Calmar Street. They continue to shine because they’re fashioned of stainless steel. The composition makes them a perfect match for the detritus of stainless steel pipes, bed frames and even surgical instruments that were found lying all around our Mashpee house while I was growing up. These Brockton railings are a testament to the innovation of my grandfather Ed Hallinan.

My grandfather was a man whom I hardly remember because he died when I was eight years old. He was a master plumber who worked his life at the Mass General Hospital, and his father Michael was the Irishman who immigrated to Boston from Cork. Michael allegedly built the Calmar Street house where my dad grew up, and as you already know, Dad is the one who took me to the Hotel Nikko in Paris when I was 12 years old. I don’t own a time machine, but suddenly I feel undeniably present within multiple spaces of time.

We humans are really good at rearranging ourselves and all of the things that we’ve managed to construct and reconstruct over the annals of time. I know that they are only slivers of semi-permanence within a greater evolution, but to me those stainless-steel railings and the strange red tower in Paris provide me with a link to not only the past, but also to the present. And somehow, in a way that I can’t imagine now, they will link me to a future that will carry forward beyond my time. The threads of life are tangled and confusing. Also, there are many places nearly worn to nothing—but ultimately, if you pay a bit of attention, you can be reassured that our contributions are built to last.